Santa Fe Scoop

Off leash: Capturing the magic of the moment

It's hard to know what pets really want for Christmas, but given a chance, David Schultz probably knows their wishes.

Schultz is the impeccable Santa Claus who's been patiently awaiting good dogs, cats and other critters at PetSmart on Zafarano Drive. With just the right twinkle in his deep-blue eyes, this Santa sports an authentic white beard along with a generous belly laugh.

And his kindness to animals knows no bounds.

Last weekend, I was part of the Felines & Friends fundraising effort, where folks and their furry friends can get a photo taken with Mr. Claus. The photos are printed at the site within minutes and come in a holiday frame for $9.95. The store donates half the cost to the animal-rescue nonprofit.

Bobbi Heller of Felines & Friends said the funds help with the spay-and-neuter program, an important branch of the group's mission.

The event, called Photos with Santa, continues today from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and at the same time next weekend. It's a good deal for a good cause.

It's hard to miss Schultz decked out in his holiday attire, but many customers did at the busy store.

During slow times, Schultz would wander off to visit homeless kittens and I would take my camera around the store, snapping pictures of pets and owners. One woman had her shopping cart filled with fluffy white dogs, while another couple walked the store with their beautiful parrots. Puppies abounded last Sunday, along with bright-eyed kittens.

No matter the size or shape, it's heart-warming to see the bond people have with their animal companions.

While the adults at the store were often preoccupied with their shopping lists, I noted two classes of beings who take everything in. Kids and dogs were naturally drawn to Santa, although some of the canines were camera-shy. That wasn't the case with the children, who were happy to see a pet-store Santa.

Most of the children would point out the man in the red suit in a whisper to whatever adult had them by their hand, and eventually they'd wave or come over for a visit. Santa would listen to their wishes and offer bits of wisdom. As a photographer, it didn't matter to me who was sitting on Santa's lap — I was trying to capture the magic of the moment.

Sometimes I'd catch bits of what the children told Santa — whispering or loudly asserting their wants — and at least one time, Santa had to relate to me a child's tale. One girl, Schultz said, told him she hadn't been good at all this year. He urged her to listen to her parents and try better.

I don't think Schultz can take a bad photo — he has that kind of presence. The dogs I photographed were a bit more problematic. The smaller dogs were somewhat easy, although many didn't particularly like to wear reindeer antlers or Christmas bells. The bigger dogs had trouble sitting on Santa's bench so we let them heel wherever they wanted.

Luckily, Abby Walker, one of the store's certified dog trainers, was there to help adjust an animal's outfit or catch its attention. Schultz said he grew his beard especially for the fundraising event. A proud owner of several cats, the longtime Felines & Friends volunteer also fosters many homeless kitties and works hard to improve the lives of all felines in our community.

That's the best gift any animal could receive.

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